What a revelation this performance of Berlioz's Messe des Morts this is. I've always admired the work for its drama, its theatricality, its stunning orchestration and its sheer originality. But I've never quite managed to fall in love with its music qua music. McCreesh's performance here, with his massed forces fully meeting all Berlioz's extravagant demands, has finally convinced me - overwhelmed me even.
First there is the sound. The (presumably) grand spaces of the Gothic church of Mary Magdalene in Wroclaw produce the kind of vast perspectives envisaged by the composer for its original performance in les Invalides in Paris. The engineers have captured the long reverberation time perfectly. I notice that one of the American reviewers worries about the loss of clarity this results in. But surely Berlioz, with his incredibly acute ear, had precisely this in mind when he wrote the piece. That reviewer is also concerned about the length of some of the pauses in the music, but again this is surely Berlioz allowing the acoustic of the building to speak, to allow for that long reverberation - Berlioz often marks whole bar+ rests with Silence and G.P. written above them to allow for this long decay. Whether in those intensely quiet passages for choir with a minimum of instruments or no instruments at all or in the vast panoply of brass bands, massed timpani and singers going flat out, aural spatial perspective enhances the content of this music no end.
But it is the musicality of this performance that makes it so distinguished. McCreesh is really inside Berlioz's unique, sometimes strange, occasionally apparently eccentric musical idiom. He understands so well the importance of melody in Berlioz's writing. These melodies can sometimes be hard to get your head round; they are often much longer than anything we're used to from Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and the like - the idée fixe in the Symphonie Fantastique, for example, is a full 40 bars long ; the tune of the Sanctus in the Messe is also 40 bars; that in the Offertoire 14 or 26 bars, depending how you read it; even the Dies Irae's main theme is a full12 bars worth. McCreesh always seems to know how to give these unusually long-limbed melodies the necessary weight to make their meaning clear. That Dies Irae theme remains a strong underpinning strand through the apparent gear-changes and speeding up and the ever-accelerating material above it in the first three sections. In the Offertoire, he helps us to concentrate on its melody, even further extended as the movement progresses, rather than allowing the ear to just focus on the quasi-plainchant of the chorus, moving through no more than a 2nd in its many reiterations.
He is also constantly aware of the sound Berlioz has specifically designed for these reverberant buildings. It's amazing how often chords are unusually spaced to aid clarity, not just the famous 3 high flutes with the deep pedal F Sharp of the 4 trombones in the Hostias. His period instruments help to make this writing wonderfully transparent. The Sanctus is another magnificent example of his perceptiveness. The use of period instruments, the placing of the tenor soloist in a gallery high above the other forces, and McCreesh's phrasing of that long-limbed melody, all contribute to an airiness, a feeling of brilliant light shining through stained-glass windows, that is unique in my experience. And in the Hosanna that follows, he is meticulous in getting the choir to follow Berlioz's instruction that it is `to be sung without violence; sustain the notes well and smoothly without emphasising individual notes'.
His huge forces - from the student brass bands (playing at the four corners of the orchestra as Berlioz instructed, not at the four corners of the building as is often done these days) to the superbly tuned Anglo-Polish choir to the convincingly haut-contre tenor of Robert Murray - all seem eager to follow his every wish. They sing in well-researched French Latin which will come as something of a shock to those used to the more familiar ecclesiastical Latin we normally get in liturgical works of this kind. For example, the `u' is pronounced more like the French `eu' sound with closed throat and pursed lips and the `c' is the soft `s' instead of the nowadays usual `ch'. So `crucem' becomes `kreutsem' rather than `kroochem'. It's all part of the striving for authenticity that really works in this context.
His engineers have done McCreesh proud. The mics are set to take full advantage of the reverberance of the building, while maintaining clarity and realism in the sound produced from the huge to the lonely single strand - that great Berliozian, David Cairns, perceptive calls the Requiem `a paradoxically intimate work'.
This is a refreshing, inspiring and revelatory performance of this famous piece and, for me, goes straight to the top of the list of recommended recordings.